Alyson is the quintessential “girl next door” comedienne. She’s pretty, but in an approachable kind of way that makes her “awkward” years on Buffy almost believable … particularly with those floral hats and enormous sweaters. The genius of Alyson, however, is that underneath that “I’m just an innocent, tiny red head” veneer lies a totally not self-conscious ferocity that makes her fresh, surprising and appealing, whether she’s playing for comedy or drama.
Alyson’s body of work is chock full of deceptively simple roles. Take Lily Aldren. Kindergarten teacher who likes pretty clothes and art projects. A generic sitcom character in the making, right? But pair those down-the-middle qualities with Lily’s undercurrent of complete ruthlessness, natural aggression and dirty mind that rivals only swinging bachelor Barney, and you’ve got a lot of traits that don’t often go together to balance out.
In the hands of a less competent actress, Lily could be uneven, inauthentic and kind of cliché. It’s Alyson’s charmingly blasé take on the broader strokes of the role that makes Lily really work. By underplaying Lily’s raunchy sense of humor and surprising moments of aggression, Alyson makes the character’s laundry list of quirks feel like subtle layers of personality. That subtlety makes broad comedy moments funnier, and the dramatic moments for Lily all the more touching.
Alyson handled Willow Rosenberg with the same delicacy, which allowed her to take a mousey role and transform over the years into a sexy lesbian witch who was both believably powerful and incredibly vulnerable. Anger, aggression, sexuality, sweetness, intellect, recklessness, addiction. All layers of the creation that is Willow. And Alyson may be a comedienne at heart, but her dramatic moments? Stunning. Remember the Dark Willow arc, after Tara is killed? Heart wrenching and terrifying at the same time. The Buffy and Willow reconciliation at the end still makes me sob!
Like everything about Buffy, the alchemy of making a classic nerd role feel subtle and layered is probably shared between the fantastic writing and Alyson’s talent for understatement. Willow is both truly homely, or at least believable as the girl that other, less interesting high school girls torment for her lack of figure and fashion sense, and radiantly unique in a way that makes it totally believable that Seth Green’s Oz can’t take his eyes off her.
The point here is that Alyson stands out in the crowd of down to earth, girl-next-door types because she never treats her girl-next-door characters as if they were simple. Her sweet, dangerously easy to typecast roles simmer with a wildness that makes her fascinatingly addictive to watch.
And that ability to play the layers of a character like the strings on a harp is what we’re here to learn from Alyson. Finding the natural ways in which real humans contradict themselves and making those inconsistencies sing is hard, but both in our work and in our own lives, it’s an essential part of being a comediva.